I have often found myself in a position where friends have asked for YA lit recommendations, knowing that I’m a something of a YA aficionado and I definitely try to keep tabs on as much of the queer YA lit that’s out there as possible. But usually whenever I try to write recommendation lists they end up somewhat unwieldy because there are so many books that could work for different tastes. So I figured I’d try to do something a bit more comprehensive, once and for all, so that I have something to refer people to when the time for recommendations comes around again. So here we are!
This list is focused mostly on books published in the past 5-ish years, and I’m leaving out some like super ubiquitous global favourites along the lines of, say, John Green (whom I love, btw!). Also you will notice some contemporary fan favourites missing, especially from the LGBT category (mainly anything written by Becky Albertalli, ahem…) and the reason for that should be pretty self-explanatory. If it’s not on this list, I probably didn’t like it all that much. If you want to see a list of ALL THE THINGS I’ve read and what I think of them, feel free to browse my LGBT and Young Adult tags on Goodreads!
As for my notes on these books, I’m terrible at plot summaries so for the most part I won’t even try. All the book titles will link to their Goodreads pages, which will give you the blurb and plenty of other reviews to help form an opinion if you’d like. I will provide very brief notes on the tone and themes of the book, as well as brief you on the kinds of LGBT representation present in the story, for example. On some occasions I will also give some further details on my opinions on the book, which are sometimes very complicated… Many of these books have been featured in my Top 10 lists in the past few years so you can check those out as well for more thoughts and slightly better blurbs.
I will also include trigger warnings as best I can without spoiling too much and based on my memories and experiences (which may be flawed, I read some of these a while back). So be warned, my trigger warnings may be lacking. If you want a more expansive list of TWs for any given book, hit me up! The books are vaguely categorised into LGBT and others, but many of the “others” also feature LGBT themes and minor characters because, well, I’m me. Within these categories, the books are alphabetised for clarity’s sake.
Also I’m sorry to say that – as I just realised myself – this list doesn’t include any books with trans representation. I have read a few such YA books, but most of them have been written by cis authors and (for that or other reasons) didn’t make the cut to my favourite books. I am definitely on the lookout for more YA (and otherwise) novels with trans and non-binary central characters so I am absolutely open for recommendations! I have several in my to-read list already, but so far they have been pretty hard to come by.
Side note to my friends here in Turku: All (or most, since the ebook collections fluctuate) of these books are available in the Turku City library, either as a physical copy or an ebook. Go wild!
YA with prominent LGBT themes
- Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Sáenz)
- A contemporary gay classic in its own right. A very beautiful, soft and quiet story about finding one’s identity and navigating feelings, friendships and family. One of those books where not much happens but much is felt. I really truly love this book. Sáenz’s follow-up The Inexplicable Logic of My Life was also pretty good but not as great (or as gay, which may or may not have something to do with it, shh) as this. Guess Ari and Dante set my expectations too high.
- Autoboyography (Christina Lauren)
- A really sweet gay romance set in a Mormon community. Will give you feels.
- TW: religious homophobia.
- The Dangerous Art of Blending In (Angelo Surmelis)
- This is definitely not an easy read. It features a fairly adorable m/m romance, but the cuteness is often shaded by the intense familial abuse the main character suffers at the hands of his mother, and that made it a pretty intense read. Now I personally love being sad, so I actually quite enjoyed the intensity, but it’s definitely not for everyone. So if you want to give it a try, just know what you’re getting yourself into!
- TW: explicit depictions of parental abuse and homophobia.
- Darius the Great is Not Okay (Adib Khorram)
- A very beautifully written story about a biracial boy’s first time visiting his grandparents in Iran. Primarily a story about culture, identity and family, pretty light on romance. (Honestly the LGBT rep in this is veeeery subtle and the romance aspect is in itself contestable, but I read this as an LGBT book so I feel it deserves to be on this list. Not all LGBT stories must be love stories). Anyway it’s pretty cute. Also does an excellent job grappling with depression and themes of mental illness and their treatment.
- The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Mackenzi Lee)
- An EXTREMELY sweet and fluffy adventure novel with all your favourite fanfic tropes and more! Features a terribly cute gay/bi romance, some excellent disability and mental illness representation and the best, snarkiest asexual lady in the YA scene. (For more of her, see also the sequel, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy)
- TW: some era-typical homophobia, but not super much, some depiction of abuse.
- Girl Made of Stars (Ashley Herring Blake)
- This book was heavyyyyyy. But so so so so good. Hearing anything described as “of the #metoo era” makes me vomit in my mouth a little, but… uh… well. If you gotta read any novel from the freaking #metoo era then it might as well be this one, because this book is EXCELLENT. I owe my entire life to Ashley Herring Blake for writing such beautifully touching stories about tough subject, her works are next level. This book is not an easy or a comfortable read, but it’s worth the pain.
- TW: rape and sexual assault (these are the central themes of the novel so if these are your triggers, proceed with caution or maybe not at all)
- Girl Mans Up (M-E Girard)
- This was an interesting read. It’s the first and only novel about a butch lesbian I’ve ever read, which makes it a worthwhile book in itself. The story was not perfect, and there were some elements of misogyny that were very hard to swallow and made this a somewhat unpleasant read at times. Full disclosure, I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads so it’s not one of my favourites, but it features a butch lesbian in a happy relationship so if you’re interested in that, this might be for you.
- TW: some pretty hostile misogyny as well as intricate shades of homophobia.
- How to Make a Wish (Ashley Herring Blake)
- Like I said, I love me some Ashley Herring Blake, and this book was extremely lovely. A lesbian love story about two girls struggling with different kinds of traumatic family situations and helping each other through hard times, love that. This is a pretty sad book, but as stated above, I’m a sucker for sadness so sign me up!
- It’s Not Like It’s a Secret (Misa Sugiura)
- Another complicated reading experience (this is a common theme with me and lesbian YA books). This book had a lot of good things, as it featured an interracial f/f-relationship between an Japanese-American girl and a Latina, which is a racial dynamic I have NEVER seen explored in fiction, let alone in a f/f romance story. There is a lot to like in this book, but there were some misunderstanding plot things that kinda turned me against it, so my reading experience was somewhat conflicted. But my bff had a more positive experience with it and she’s also a good authority on LGBT fiction so who knows, this could be your thing as well!
- Juliet Takes a Breath (Gabby Rivera)
- I’m not sure if this book is technically YA (Goodreads says so?), but it’s a queer feminist masterpiece so I’m taking every chance I get to recommend it! Very keen observations on feminist community and academia, lesbian identity and its intersections with race. Absolutely delightful!
- Release (Patrick Ness)
- Another story about a gay teenager coming out in a strictly religious family community somewhat based on Ness’ own experiences. A very intense story interlaced with something of a paranormal/fantasy mystery (which was my least favourite part of it, but definitely not a deal-breaker!)
- TW: religious homophobia.
- Summer of Salt (Katrina Leno)
- Another lesbian fave! This adventure of magical realism is a fantastical detective story, as well as the story of growing up and family secrets and new crushes and twin sisters and I really liked it! It’s not super long, due to which all the mysteries were pretty easy to deduce very early on and the f/f-relationship kinda takes a backseat to the other stuff, so there was definitely room for improvement, but it was still pretty great.
- [THIS TRIGGER WARNING IS A MAJOR SPOILER, HIGHLIGHT TO READ] TW: sexual assault, rape
- They Both Die at the End (Adam Silvera)
- Read the title and be warned. Silvera is a good go-to guy for stories about sad gays and this is no exception. An interesting dystopian setting and a bittersweet whirlwind romance between two boys. For more Silvera sadness, see also History is All You Left Me.
- Two Boys Kissing (David Levithan)
- An oldie but a goodie! My favourite Levithan book, and considering is wide catalogue of LGBT novels that’s saying something. The story is not super extraordinary in and of itself, but the setting is imaginative and the use of spirits of dead gay people as omniscient narrators is absolutely genius! Well worth checking out.
- We Are the Ants (Shaun David Hutchinson)
- A truly unique scifi story about the end of the world, dead ex-boyfriends, finding new love and hope. Hutchinson loves bizarre apocalypse stories and his other books also hit very interesting notes, but this is undoubtedly my favourite!
- TW: suicide (happened before events of the book), depression.
- You Asked for Perfect (Laura Silverman)
- This book grapples with themes of academic stress and the pressure of trying to get to an Ivy League college better than pretty much any book I’ve read. That aspect made it a pretty stressful read because I sympathised with the main character a little too much, but it was pretty great regardless. Also a wealth of representation (A Jewish bi dude and his Arabic Muslim love interest plus his Korean lesbian best friend? Sign me the fuck up!), which was done really well in my opinion, too. I realise that listing it all out like that makes it seem a little tokenistic, but it didn’t feel like that to me when I was reading it. It just felt like life, which was pretty great.
Other YA greats (although many of these feature LGBT themes too because I’m me and I like me some gay shit)
- All American Boys (Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely)
- This book, coauthored by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, is about race and police brutality and it’s about as joyful a read as that portends. But I really like it! Reynolds wrote the POV of a black boy (Rashad, who is attacked by a police officer) and Kiely wrote the POV of a white boy (Quinn, who witnesses the attack and knows the officer who did it), and the dual perspective really works in this book’s favour, both narrative-wise and on a more meta level. But definitely not like in a “we’re both equally wrong and to blame” kind of way, nah nah nah. I know there are a looooot of books out there about race and the tensions between POC communities and the police at the moment, but this is among the best I’ve read in the genre. Very nuanced take on a very sensitive issue.
- Bird (Crystal Chan)
- This is apparently categorised as a Middle Grade book, so at the very youngest edge of Young Adult. So much so that it was shelved in the children’s section of my library, which made it very hard to find… But honestly I think this story has a lot to give to an older reader as well. It’s about family and death and loneliness and childhood and parenthood and I CRIED LIKE A BABY when I read it. A very touching, beautifully told story.
- Children of Blood and Bone (Tomi Adeyemi)
- I don’t read a whole lot of fantasy these days (save my annual reread of The Lord of the Rings, which is probably the reason why I don’t bother with much else…), especially newer releases. It just seems like it’s hard to come by something original these days. And while Children of Blood and Bone was a fairly traditional fantastical journey, the unique setting and superb worldbuilding made it a fascinating, immersive read, despite the slightly archetypal characters. Also I wasn’t a huge fan of the romance subplot in this book, remains to be seen where the sequels will take it… Still, definitely a worthwhile read for fantasy geeks!
- Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)
- I’ve written extensively about my feelings regarding this book in the past, but safe to say that despite my initial qualms about reading a book about fanfiction and fan culture, this book remains one of my favourite YA reads (although according to some standards I guess it’s New Adult? Do I care? Nah.) and one I keep returning to time and again. It’s veeeeery fluffy. But ain’t nothing wrong with fluffy. I just really love the characters and I identify with the main character Cath a whole lot. Rainbow Rowell is disturbingly good at plucking at my heartstrings, and in my opinion this is her masterpiece. Eleanor & Park is very good and Carry On had its moments, but this is undoubtedly my favourite and thus earns my recommendation!
- Far From the Tree (Robin Benway)
- I. Freaking. Love. This. Book!!! It tells the story of three biological siblings who were separated as children, and how they rebuild and reevaluate their respective family situations and their relationships with each other and it’s so beautiful and makes me cry loads. But like in a good way. I love the three main characters so much and all of their stories handled with a lot of grace and nuance and ugh, just so good. Highly recommended.
- The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)
- Alright, alright, everyone already knows about this one. But seriously if you haven’t read it yet, JUST DO IT! Yet another story about race and police brutality, but also about community and identity and grief and finding your own voice. Just SO GOOD. Thomas is one of the best YA authors out there, no question, and her follow-up, On the Come Up is also definitely worth a read.
- I’ll Give You the Sun (Jandy Nelson)
- More sibling stories! Love me some complex sibling dynamics, aw yeah. This was kind of a strange book, but I liked it a lot. Narrated by two twins, one from the present and one from the past, it’s kind of a frustrating, heartbreaking tale of family and connections and trust lost and repaired, and all sorts of central life themes, but… I don’t know, there’s something very tricky about this book that makes it hard to describe but very interesting to read. I recommend giving it a go.
- Naondel (Maria Turtschaninoff)
- A rare Finnish book on this list. It wasn’t originally written in Finnish (although that’s the version I read) though and has been translated to English so we’re good! This is actually a prequel to the first book in the series, Maresi, but where Maresi was maybe for a slightly younger audience, this prequel is slightly darker in tone. It’s a pretty heavy story about the many wives of a tyrannical ruler and how the different women join forces to help each other escape their imprisonment. Such a good book! I think this can be read independently from Maresi and its direct sequel, which is why I chose to list this instead of them. But don’t get me wrong, all three of them rule. If you’re looking for some truly badass feminist YA fantasy, you can’t go wrong with this series.
- TW: A whole lot of rape and sexual violence. Takes place in a fantastical harem setting, basically, and you can probably guess what that entails. Not graphic and doesn’t go into details, but very intense all the same.
- The Rest of Us Just Live Here (Patrick Ness)
- I just freaking love Patrick Ness! This book takes place in a town where supernatural occurrences – among the teen population at least – are entirely ordinary, and it follows a group of friends with no special powers as they try to navigate their way through the last weeks of high school (in hopes that no otherwordly battle will blow up their school before graduation) as well as trying not to get tangled in the much bigger end-of-the-world battle against evil raging on in the background. I really love the premise and the characters. The only part I wasn’t into was the romance subplot, but it wasn’t bad enough to ruin my enjoyment by any means.
- The Smell of Other People’s Houses (Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock)
- This book is criminally underappreciated. Taking place in 1970’s Alaska, the book tells the intertwining stories of four teenagers trying to deal with life in their town full of secrets and troubles. I won’t go into too much detail about the plot(s), but as a person who LOVES intertwining plotlines with several POV characters, this book was right up my alley. It was sad, sweet, intense, exciting and all in all just a very emotional read for me.
- The Sun is Also a Star (Nicola Yoon)
- This in some ways a pretty generic boy-meets-girl YA romance novel, but something about the narration style and the very limited time frame of the story made it a very captivating and enjoyable read. I found the characters quite endearing and their life situations (as well as the background themes of race and culture and the tensions they can cause in a person’s life) were quite gripping, honestly. This isn’t necessarily the most revolutionary YA novel out there, but it’s sweet and enjoyable all the same!
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)
- One of my all-time favourite books. The writing is beautiful, as is the story, which deals with family and death and secrets and love, as the main character June discovers many buried family secrets when his beloved uncle dies and she meets a man who turns out to have been his partner. Also it’s a story about sisterhood because of course it is. I cannot sufficiently describe how much I love this book (or the plot for that matter, apparently…), but it really is a wonderful read. I gave a slightly more expansive review in my Top 10 Books I Read in 2015 list if you’re curious. Also prepare to cry.
- A Very Large Expanse of the Sea (Tahereh Mafi)
- I know I start pretty much every summary with this disclaimer but… this was a pretty tough read! This book tells the story of a muslim teenager and it’s set in the US in 2002 so you do the math… This is a pretty visceral portrayal of what it’s like to be a muslim girl in post-9/11 America and what will happen if you happen to fall for a popular white boy. It’s not pretty. The story is actually pretty bleak for a YA romance, but I felt like it was saying something many people need to hear, and therefore I heartily recommend giving it a go.
- TW: very intense islamophobia
Well, I guess that’s it for now. I intend to keep adding to this list as I read more books, so feel free to pop back to check for updates every once in a while if you want more reading recs from me! There are so many promising books on my to-read list, but I’m something of an erratic reader so it can take me a while to get to certain books, even ones I’m excited about. Also you can check my to-read tag on Goodreads for hints about what I’ve got on my radar. No guarantees for quality, though, obviously.